1958, for the first and only time, the voice, the
stage presence and art of Maria Callas graced the most historic of
Portuguese opera houses: Lisbon's Teatro Nacional de São Carlos.
Despite playing Violetta in only two performances (the 27th and
30th of March), Maria Callas' performance earned a place in
operatic history. Even today, when the Lisbon Traviata
is mentioned, one automatically thinks of Callas, even though the
São Carlos had been privileged to witness other sublime Violettas
by Caniglia (1948), Tebaldi (1950), Zeani (1957), Scotto (1968)
and Sutherland (1974). As usual, the Portuguese national
public radio station, Emissora Nacional de Radiodifusão --
nowadays called Rádio Difusão Portuguesa or RDP -- broadcast live the opening night performance, where Callas was joined by
Alfredo Kraus as Alfredo, Mario Sereni as Giorgio Germont, with
Franco Ghione conducting the Orquestra Sinfônica Nacional,
Portugal's National Symphony Orchestra. The occasion marked Maria
Callas' debut in Portugal, an importante event the Emissora
Nacional lost no time in archiving the original iron oxide tapes
With the passing of time, these tapes were either forgotten or
feared lost, when suddenly, in Europe and the United States,
various unauthorized editions of the Lisbon Traviata appeared.
Though unauthorized, the editions were welcomed with justified
enthusiasm, for they made available to a worldwide audience a
performance which had gained a legendary aura. The only regret was
their precarious and muffled sound, which obscured the subtlety of
Callas' interpretation, as well as Kraus' glorious vocalism.
This inferior sound quality can be heard in the well-known and
much sold version of EMI's 1980 commercial release.
Taking into account that only RDP possessed the original tapes,
the appearance of several unauthorized issues of the Lisbon
Traviata raised the question of which source tapes were used by
these versions. Applying good old common sense, João
Pereira Bastos, the director of Antena 2 (Antena 2 is the RDP
channel dedicated to classical music and jazz), refused to
speculate on this matter, though he points out that every artist
participating in a musical performance broadcast by the RDP is
granted a copy of the tape upon request, extended as a personal
courtesy as long as the copy is used solely for personal archive
purposes. Therefore, it is conceivable that Alfredo Kraus or Mario
Sereni were given copies of their performances under this
practice, which eventually the artists might have entrusted to
record companies. And indeed they did so. Ed Rosen, who produced
the first unofficial edition of the Lisbon Traviata,
informed Opera-L (an internet discussion list) he had acquired a
copy of the mentioned performance through the generosity of
Alfredo Kraus. Fearing the loss of the original tapes, the
tenor wanted to preserve a night which he considered unique.
Kraus was, nonetheless, mistaken. The original recording was both
intact and secure in the RDP's archives. In the 70s, it had been
transferred to chromium tapes to protect it from the ravages of
time and later, in 1994, it was digitally remastered. The
recording in question was merely awaiting its discovery and
subsequent revelation to the musical world, which in fact happened
under the most casual of circumstances. As Callas herself would
say, according to the designs of fate.
Back in 1997, RDP found itself in a crisis. For the September 25th
broadcast of the Traviata performance on the station's "Noite
de Ópera" ("Opera Night") program, it was found
that the tape of the intended performance could not be
transmitted. To fill the gap, a new recording, preferably another
"Traviata" had to be found. The radio program's director
Margarida Lisboa suggested "Why not the Callas' Traviata?"
João Pereira Bastos was dismissive towards Margarida Lisboa's
suggestion, since he assumed Lisboa was referring to the EMI
edition, and Bastos found the sound quality of that particular
edition irritatingly poor. But that was not the recording Lisboa
was referring to, however. The RDP had its own, archived
recording. Intrigued, the director of Antena 2 inquired if there
was any noticeable difference between the sound quality of both
recordings. "I think so," hesitantly answered
Lisboa. Everyone realized, after listening to the RDP's tapes,
that Margarida Lisboa's reluctant reply resurrected the
original Lisbon Traviata, restored to its magnificent sound.
the 25th of September 1997, the official version of the true and
original recording of the Lisbon Traviata was finally broadcast
by Antena 2.
Antena 2's administration very wisely considered that it was
its duty to make this historic document available to the public.
Consequently, in December 2000, the first CD edition of the Lisbon
Traviata from its original source tape was issued, with no
commercial intentions. This RDP edition was merely a courtesy
issue, and its copies could not be found either in record shops or similar commercial establishments.
In less than a month, the
2000 copies sold out quickly, from a reception desk inside RDP's
main building in Lisbon!
The voracity of the demand was fully justified by the excellence
of the edition, which included thoughtfully curated program notes
and libretto (including several previously unpublished photos of
La Divina), in lavish packaging exuding elegant good taste. And
the at the conclusion of the recording, a bonus track reveals a
message from Maria Callas dedicated to the portuguese audience in
a bonus track, taped in anticipation of her performance.
The true glory of RDP's Lisbon Traviata remains nevertheless its
sound, limpid and crystalline. Though its source is
monophonic, it reveals to the listener the completeness of what
took place on the São Carlos stage on the evening of March 27th,
1958, capturing even the subtlest details of Kraus and La Divina's
Much has been said about the detailed web of vocal inflections in
which Callas created her characters. Her Violetta breathes through
the subtle embroidery of vocal colours. One only needs to listen
to the courtesan's entrance in the first act in order to witness
the first sublime strokes made by the Greek soprano. A
willful "lo voglio?". A skeptical smile in
"Scherzate", the refined irony in "Voi, Barone, non
foste altrettanto", followed by delicate dynamic contrasts in
the famous "Brindisi". Thanks to the superior
sound quality of RDP's Traviata, listeners can feast and be
marveled by many more examples of Callas miraculous artistry.
previous releases, those same examples are muffled and obscured,
seem diluted and almost disappear. To paraphrase La Divina, when
comparing RDP's reissue and previous bootleg editions, the
differences are dramatic as champagne and Coca-Cola.
Since the first edition (issued solely in Portugal) is already
sold out, it is only natural that opera lovers worldwide will
long for a future reissue, but the prospects are not encouraging.
João Pereira Bastos admitted that a Lisbon Traviata reissue is
not a priority for RDP as a public radio station, and only in the most exceptional and justifiable
circumstances does the organization produce CD editions of tapes
from its archives. The project is dependent upon the will of the
stations administration as well as favourable counsel from the
RDP's legal department.
It is understandable that the RDP's human and financial resources
should be mainly focused on creating radio programs. But
nonetheless, opera lovers would find highly desirable if the radio
station could indulge listeners with a reissue of the Lisbon Traviata
, or even -- why not? -- new editions of the
, a Don Giovanni
with Caballé, or even
the São Carlos other Traviatas
with Sutherland or Scotto. Opera
lovers worldwide would welcome a taste of the Portuguese musical
champagne now maturing in RDP's priceless archives.
Marques is a Classical Voice correspondent from Lisbon, Portugal.